The following is a list of things that happen to me in China, that drive me straight up a wall.
In publishing this list – and even in the making of such a list, by no means am I suggesting that Chinese culture is bad or must be changed, nor am I saying I do not appreciate it or enjoy it (I enjoy most all facets of Chinese culture immensely). It's just these aspects, when they occur in relation to me... well, they just drive me 'round the bend!
The Guanxi Game:
It's all about reciprocity: I've done something for you, now you must do something for me. That's marvelous! Except, I didn't ask you to do something for me.
Some people I know are adept at The Guanxi Game. From small gifts to lavish dinners, always with a hidden agenda that soon becomes clear. The thing is, I would help anyone who needs whatever service or work I can provide; I don't need a dinner or a gift in order to be prodded or coerced to do so. All anyone has to do is ask.
Are you OK?
That one is usually followed by 'you should take a rest'. I don't know if it is my foreingn-ness or my age that brings this on but I usually feel like a doddering old fool in the face of this type of solicitousness.
Proving my ability doesn't seem to dissuade those who are overwhelmingly concerned that I might keel over from sheer exhaustion at their feet. While climbing to our 6th floor office – and keeping pace with the freshmen who were climbing with me, a concerned party tugged my shirt and asked how I was holding up, and if I wanted to take a rest. I suppose all of the bike-riding and exercising and physical conditioning I do means nothing in the face of that much 'care'.
A cousin of that concern is the constant urge to be careful, or grabbing my arm to help me on/off the curb, to cross a road, to climb stairs, etc.
I Must Take Care Of You!
More and more I find it less fun and engaging to go out by myself. Therefore, I quite enjoy rambling around town with others. However, I must take into account that whoever I invite to accompany me will invariably take full custody of me. That goes so far as making sure I am never alone, even in the bathroom. Taking my arm when exiting the bus, carrying my bags (sometimes wresting them away) and constantly urging me to caution. Seeing to it that I arrive home safely is par for the course – not just to our campus to clear up to my apartment door.
One woman with whom I am friendly with has suggested a trip out of town. I shudder at the idea that she will take physical possession of me and my things, and not relinquish her hold until we part company. Or, I until blow my top. How do I know she would? She has done it before.
With that approach to helping the 'helpless', I wonder what such people think I do when they are not around to babysit me?
People around here apparently think I have nothing better to do than to sit around my house, just waiting for company. Thus, at any given time, a visitor is likely to drop by, unannounced and apparently thinking my house will be clean, my cupboard will overflow with snacks, and I will be ready and eager to host.
Even though I don't live like a pig, my house is not always company-ready. In extremely hot weather I might not even be fully dressed! And, even though it seems to defy the imagination, even though I am 'only at home, alone' I have plenty to keep my occupied.
Try as I might, I cannot seem to persuade people to text before a visit.
You Speak Chinese!
Somehow, after living here for 6 years, it is apparently astounding that I can speak, understand, read or write any Chinese.
In all fairness, those who don't know me, such as: street vendors, bus drivers, merchants and the like might have reason to be surprised. But my students, colleagues and others who know how long I've been here and know of my love for learning could intuit that, in order to live in this corner of Wuhan, where there are no foreigner concessions or any other foreigners, I must have learned at least some Chinese. How would I shop for food, otherwise?
Again, I'm not sure whether this phenomenon is a result of my foreign-ness or my age. I respect that Chinese is a complex language that is difficult to learn. Difficult, not impossible
Let me help you!
This is usually said in the context of my doing something relatively mild, such as carrying something or putting on my coat but sometimes will extend to tying my shoes or getting on a bus. I've learned to accept this type of help.
Paradoxically, when I really need help and ask for it, I am met with evasiveness. If it is something beyond my ability to deal with myself, I live with frustration. Otherwise, I try figure things out by myself and, after the situation is resolved, I am treated to grand displays of amazement.
Let me stress: I am not at all opposed to Chinese culture in any of its facets. That is not what this article is about. I understand those displays of caring are meant to show respect; guanxi is an integral part of Chinese culture and, for a foreigner to speak any measure of Chinese is remarkable, in the sense that anyone who can speak more than one language is remarkable. I just wish all of that culture didn't have to get in the way of friendship. I worry that all that deference could be keeping us from enjoying a mutually respectful relationship – by respect, I mean of each other and our abilities, not of my 'advanced' age or foreign-ness.
I wonder if any other foreigner has experienced these acts? Been a victim of such frustrations?
And what habits or aspects of foreigners drive Chinese people crazy?